We live in a very beautiful area, says Staats Fasoldt, maybe the most beautiful in the country
Thirty-two years ago I began teaching at The Woodstock School of Art. I found myself outdoors with students, teaching in the beautiful Woodstock landscape. Though it had never been explicitly stated that I was to teach outdoors, a vacuum had been created when Bob Angeloch ended his landscape painting class and moved indoors to his print shop.
I was a new instructor with limited knowledge of Woodstock. Bob gave me a tour of local painting spots. He drove me around the town to California Quarry, Magic Meadow, and several places along the Sawkill. Unfortunately, it was a rainy, foggy day, and we could see only a few feet in front of us. After scrambling up a wet precipice standing at the edge of a cliff looking out at dense grey fog, Bob said with a dramatic and somewhat furtive sweep of his hand, “Over here is a mountain, and here you can see the village nestled among the trees. This is a really great spot.”
I became the outdoor painting teacher and explored the many nooks and crannies of Woodstock landscape. In time I returned to all these places in better weather. They were indeed all good spots at which to paint. I also learned quickly that the true beauty of a landscape painting site depended on the availability of parking and bathrooms. A good restaurant nearby didn’t hurt, either.
In that ancient era painting outdoors was called outdoor painting, or simply landscape painting. At some point the term plein air snuck into our vocabulary, probably popularized by some Don Draper type to help sell painting workshops. The term had the advantage of being French, always a plus in the arts, and of being not quite understandable. I’ve had hundreds of conversations on its meaning and pronunciation, but it seems obvious to me that it means painting outdoors.
We owe our love of outdoor painting to the French, of course. The brilliant Claude Monet and his Impressionist friends made it a heroic and iconic act to get out of the studio and work in the field. No artist can look at Monet’s work and not want to go out side and try it for themselves. It’s almost always sunny in his paintings, with family and friends around, and parties going on nearby. Their work displays an ideal state of a peaceful, cultured life.
I can’t leave out our own Hudson River School, the first indigenous school of American art whose activity was centered in the Hudson Valley. A little earlier than the Impressionists, our school was a little more romantic but totally besotted with the Hudson Valley landscape. Sublime was the word they used to describe it, and so it was and still is, able to elicit esthetic arrest in a viewer. Just cross the Kingston-Rhinecliff bridge at sunset for a sample dose, or stand at the eastern end of North Lake looking out over the Hudson, the very spot to which the Hudson River painters laboriously trekked.
We live in a very beautiful area, maybe the most beautiful in the country. Most of my outdoor painting excursions have been within driving distance of the Woodstock School of Art. You need go no further.
A whole industry has developed to serve the outdoor painter’s needs, from the nearly perfect piece of basswood engineering called the French easel to clever modern variants of metal plastic and polymers. Paint kits range in size from something that will fit in the palm of you hand to elaborate-wheeled small vehicles. Clothes, bags, boots and fragrances are all made specifically for the outdoor painter.
When I began painting outdoors I usually sat on the ground on a blanket, palette beside me. Nowadays, my sitting on the ground to paint requires strong people to help get me up when I am done. I finally bought a French easel, which since then has remained my basic easel. Weighing six pounds, it’s the smaller version called the half-box, with straps so I can wear it like a backpack. I bring a canvas bag with my pallet and brushes, water and lunch. This bag also has a strap and can be worn, keeping the hands free, which is good on rough trails.
For pleasant outdoor work you must have a hat (wide brim preferably), bug repellant for mosquitoes, which otherwise can ruin your day. Good comfortable shoes. Long pants, to protect you from poison ivy, socks over the bottom of the pant leg to deter ticks. Sunblock.
When I began working outdoors there were no ticks with Lyme following us. There is today, and it’s a real problem for outdoor activity. I’ve been treated twice for Lyme and have many friends who suffer from the results of it. You really must check yourself for ticks after being in nature. It has changed the way I think about outdoor painting.
The outdoor painting experience is good for your health. You will experience moments of peace, and can reconnect some of your disparate psychic parts split of in the struggle with the modern world. You can experience the mind of Monet for a little while and walk away smiling, with a slight French accent. But do check for Monsieur Tick